Fitness for Dummies

Recently I took advantage of a free personal training session being offered by a popular gym chain.  Though I’ve been working out 5-6 times per week for more than two years now, I’ve always been a solo act.  I began my weight loss journey by participating in group classes like kickboxing, step aerobics, and yoga at the local YMCA, and when those routines no longer challenged me physically, I stuck to working out on my own, gradually incorporating more strength training and now (still to my disbelief!) running nearly every day.

I’ve never worked out with a trainer, but since there seems to be no end to my current weight loss plateau in sight, I figured it couldn’t hurt to check in with a professional who has been trained in the delicate art of blasting fat and building muscle on the human body.

The first thing my trainer for the day did was weigh me and measure my body fat with this nifty little tool that sends electric pulses through the body and spits out a percentage (big surprise: I’m teetering right on the edge of “normal” and “overweight”).  Then we sat down to talk, and I relived 24 years of obesity and bragged about my recent success in losing 90 lbs.  I confided that my weight has been at a standstill for well over a year – I’m thrilled that I’m maintaining my loss, I said, but it still would be nice to reach my “goal weight” once and for all.  I told him all about my dedication to the Weight Watchers lifestyle, and filled him in on exactly what I’ve been doing in the gym.

It was then that he proceeded to tell me that while I may have my healthy eating regimen under control, I’ve been making just about every mistake you can make when it comes to getting results at the gym. So I thought I’d share four fitness tips he gave me with all of you, in case you’re making some of the same mistakes I am and, like me, can’t necessarily afford to spend hundreds of dollars on a trainer to correct them.

1.)  Weights First.  When I told the trainer that my gym routine typically consists of 30-40 minutes of cardio (running, biking, etc.) followed by 10-20 minutes of strength training, you would think that I just told him that I also devour a half gallon of Ben & Jerry’s every night and purge myself before bed.  He seemed utterly appalled that I would even think about doing cardio prior to lifting weights.

What I gleaned from his convoluted, rambling explanation as to why I must strength train before I run or hit the cross trainer is that, when working out, the body burns through protein, then carbohydrates, then fat.  So in order to sculpt lean muscle, he said, I should perform 30 minutes of weight training (before my muscles feel fatigued, and before cardio zaps all the stored protein my body needs to build new muscle) before proceeding to my usual cardio activity.

Intrigued by his advice, I’ve conducted a lot of Internet research on the subject…and it seems the jury’s out on this one.  Some say cardio first, others day strength training first, and others say it doesn’t matter much either way.

Still, it can’t hurt to try something new – that’s what hiring a trainer is all about, right?

2.)  No More Machines.  I told him that while I know I should be exploring other forms of resistance training, I still rely heavily on weight machines at the gym.  They’re convenient and have given me decent results in the past.  Plus, once you become familiar with using them, I can breeze through a circuit quickly and efficiently.

He then essentially banned me from using the chest press and hip abductor ever again, explaining that you can only go so far when training your muscles with the help of a machine.  He said that using free weights and exercises that utilize your own body weight as resistance allow for a better range of motion and engage a wider range of muscles.

To prove his point, he lead me through a grueling circuit of leg, arm, and core exercises, including squats, tricep dips, and the dreaded plank position.  The only equipment we used were a Bosu Ball, a bench, a mat, and two 5-lb weights, and I was truly impressed by how great of a workout I had without so much as laying a finger on the gym’s wide array of weight lifting machines.

The bottom line is that after one 30-minute session with a personal trainer, sans weight lifting machines or cardio of any kind, my body ached more than it ever has.  I had trouble climbing stairs for a week after our session, and I suddenly started seeing muscles in my biceps that I didn’t know existed.  If I’m training myself every day and my muscles have never felt so fatigued, then clearly I’m not challenging them the way I should.

3.)  Ditch the Routine.  Once you’ve made going to the gym a consistent part of your daily life, it’s all too easy to fall into a routine while you’re there. I confessed that there are times when I more or less stick to the same exercises, in the same order, and at the same time every day, especially if I’m having a particularly busy week and don’t have as much time to dedicate to working out.

Needless to say, he was not happy.

While the trainer applauded my commitment to physical activity, he said the only way to increase my fitness level – and get the scale to budge – is to “shock” my system.  It’s crucial for me to leave my comfort zone in the dust and commit to finding new ways of challenging my body, burning fat, and building muscle.

I know he’s absolutely right.

4.)  Heart Rate Monitoring. When I go to the gym, I’m on a mission: to burn as many calories as I possibly can in as short amount of time as I possibly can.  I can typically only squeeze a 60-minute work-out session into my day, and if you know anything about Weight Watchers, you know that for every 100 calories burned you’re allotted 1 extra “Activity POINT” – which, on most days, I need to incorporate into my program just to stay within my daily POINTS target of 24.

The trainer, however, advised me to worry less about burning calories and more about lowering my body fat percentage.  I can keep my current weight right where it is, he said – all I have to do is replace the fat on my body with lean muscle.  That requires me to stop obsessing about calories burned on the treadmill and instead start thinking about strategically targeting certain muscle groups and training them to continue burning calories even while at rest.  Burning calories while parked in front of my laptop, or lounging on the couch watching Boy Meets World reruns?  Where do I sign up?

He encouraged me to make a concentrated effort to work out in my optimal “fat burning zone.”  As an almost-25-year-old-woman, my maximum heart rate to burn fat is a mere 156 BPM (beats per minute).  Trouble is, I regularly don a Polar F6 Heart Rate Monitor, and I can tell you that when I’m circling the park near my home and moving at what feels like nothing more than a slow jog, my heart is working at well over 156 BPM.  In fact, I often reach upwards of 165 or even 170 BPM on an average run.

Lately I’ve also been trying short bursts of high-intensity activity followed by periods of rest (yeah, yeah, like they do on The Biggest Loser) – and when I set the treadmill at an 8.0 speed and 5.0 incline for 60 seconds, I can promise you that I’m way beyond the “fat burning” zone the trainer was talking about.  (Of course, I’m always careful not to exceed my personal “cardiovascular training” zone, because, well, I’d rather not give myself a heart attack).

Again, the writer in me set out to research his claims – and, once again, I uncovered nothing but heated debates about this one all over the Internet.  I was unable to find any consensus about the benefits of maintaining a steady “fat burning” heart rate instead of picking up the pace to reach the limits of one’s “cardiovascular training” rate while exercising.

My consensus?  I was comforted by the trainer’s insistence that I worry less about shedding  pounds and lowering my current BMI (“a 250-pound body builder would be considered obese according to that silly chart,” he said), and inspired to stop obsessing so much about calories in and calories out.  I catch myself ogling the fit, athletic women pictured in my women’s health magazines all the time – I work out almost every day, and yet I still look nothing like they do.  I just want my body to appear as strong and powerful on the outside as I now feel on the inside.

Frankly, I’m tired of obsessing over what the scale says; I’m so proud of my weight loss success and my current dress size, and I’m extremely motivated to become even more fit and healthy than I am now.  I’m desperate to put my life-long struggle with obesity behind me, and all I want to do is continue eating well, exercising, and feeling energetic and alive.

I’m willing to try absolutely anything that will continue to motivate me to do just that.


  1. hamiltonmka says:

    Great update! Let us know how your new workout regimen is going. It’s so hard to figure out what the “right” way to exercise is. Especially when we’re so good at following WW and all their “rules”. I commend you for trying something new though – I hope it pays off for you!

  2. hamiltonmka says:

    Forgot to mention that I too yearn to have a body like the people in fitness magazines. Then I remind myself that they are magazines and are probably doctored images to make the person look perfect!

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